Wednesday 19 June 2019

How I got on with Joyce . . . not the girl at the back, but auld Specky

Gifted: James Joyce
Gifted: James Joyce

David Robbins

There was a time, when you told people you were studying literature at UCD, they would lean towards you conspiratorially and ask: "How are you getting on with Joyce?"

You wondered if they meant that Protestant girl in the báinín sweater who sat at the back of the lecture hall. But you soon realised they meant James Joyce. Oh him.

We made a science of not reading Joyce back then. We listened to Gus Martin go on about Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. We read around the books themselves. We could answer questions and write essays about them, but we'd never opened the works themselves.

There was an aura about them. Men had gone mad trying to figure out Finnegans Wake, it was said. There were rumours that there wasn't a full stop in it from beginning to end.

Bits of Ulysses were funny, we heard, but the idea that the whole thing was based on a Greek epic poem was off-putting. There was an episode called 'Lestrygonians'. See what I mean?

People preferred to read Flann O'Brien, or even Beckett, and through them hear the far-off tinkle of Joyce. Anything but approach the man himself.

Oh, we knew all about him. Auld specky with his roundy glasses and his straw boater and cane, and Nora Barnacle and Trieste and the roaring madman of a father.

But his words? No. Not unless absolutely necessary.

Well, there were a few hardy lads who took him on. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was the way to go, they said, a kind of gateway drug to Joyce.

But if you went all the way -- Ulysses, say, or Finnegans Wake itself -- you could be gone for years. Off buying lemon soap in Swenys Chemist, or eating nutty gizzards for breakfast, yammering away in stream-of-consciousness rubbish.

Then, somehow, definitely by accident, I read The Dead, a 16,000-word novella that is the last story in Dubliners, which was published 100 years ago this week.

Nothing out of the ordinary here, I remember thinking. Nothing "experimental". Punctuation and everything. Action. Dialogue. Description. Quite moving, actually.

And Joyce had a gift for names. Okay, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy are good, solid, but uninspired names for the main characters. But alcoholic Freddy Malins? Famed tenor Bartell D'Arcy? Dickens would kill for those names.

More than that. There was a power to the writing, and a deep feeling for human weakness. Oh, and it was lively too, with its description of the dinner and dance hosted by the Misses Morkan.

The Dead has a particular fascination. It was filmed by John Huston in 1987 and adapted as a musical in 1999. Last Monday, a musical evening was held at 15 Usher's Island (where the story is set) to commemorate the centenary.

The story takes place in 1904, and the social rituals of the Dublin middle classes of the time are so well described. The guests are part of the city's musical set: singers in choirs and players and sopranos and baritones.

There is a threadbare gentility about them. It's easy to see them as part of the European bourgeoisie, whose concerns are music, art and politics. You could imagine identical dinner parties in Paris or London or Vienna, with the same dress, the same food and the same conversation.

The end of the story is powerful and atmospheric. Gabriel and his wife Gretta make their way back through the quiet, snow-covered city.

They talk and Gretta remembers a boy from her past. Gabriel has a kind of epiphany (the story is presumed to be set on January 6, feast of the Epiphany, even though this is not explicitly stated in the text): he does not know his wife.

The setting is richly Irish; the themes are universal. The Dead is about a slightly awkward dinner party in Dublin in 1904, but it's also about the impossibility of really knowing someone else.


Irish Independent

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